Central Working, the crowded open seating area at Campus London, doesn’t just make great coffee; it is playing a central role in brewing new start-ups. Entrepreneurs, like the java they sip by day and the beers they drink to unwind in the evening, benefit from infusion and fermentation, and Central Working provides that plus filtering. “To put it bluntly, if Central Working wasn’t there, we wouldn’t be here,” says Shawn Zvinis, founder of Subscrib, a retention service for bricks and mortar shops. “You can literally walk around Central Working and find someone who can help you get to the next step of wherever you are going.”
Like hundreds of other start-ups, such as CPD Review and Site Morph, Subscrib got its start at Central Working over the last 12 months. Zvinis met his co-founder Gary Luce while they were both volunteering at a TechHub event on the ground floor of Google Campus, but pretty much every other stage of the company can be traced back to the café in the basement. It was at Central Working that they worked on Zvinis’s idea for the business, bringing a digital subscription model to bricks and mortar retail. It was there that they found their first business client, Dose Espresso. It was there that they met their first angel investor. And it was there that they caught the eye of their first consumer customer, a serendipitous encounter which would eventually lead to a €50,000 investment from Seedcamp, a global microseed investment fund and mentoring program headquartered out of Campus’s fourth floor.
Seedcamp Partner Carlos Espinal was actually Subscrib’s very first customer. Zvinis met up with him at Central Working and pitched him on the formula: instead of scanning your mobile phone as you might at Starbucks, customers pay in advance and upload a photo to help merchants verify their identity at the cash register. A payment of £25 is worth £30 to the customer and discounts get higher the more money is paid in advance.
“It’s not like your typical loyalty program that says, ‘swipe your card here and we’ll give you some points’; it was like ‘pay up $50.’ I was like holy crap, this is a big chunk of cash,” recalls Espinal. But he realized that was about what he’d spend in a month on food and coffee at Central Working anyway and that prepaying would eliminate those awkward moments when he was hosting visitors and forgot to bring cash when they dashed downstairs for a coffee or lunch. “I put my investor hat on and said, ‘If I’m one person that has this problem, let’s say that there’s 100 people in this space who do that, you’re talking about £5,000 that they get a month up front,’” says the Seedcamp Partner.
Suddenly, Subscrib customer 001 was interested in much more than just discounted coffee. Being situated in Google Campus meant this coffee shop encounter quickly evolved into a new business opportunity. “What you have here is I can meet somebody and say, ‘let’s have a chat.’ They’re in the same building. It’s very different than having to coordinate a flight,” says Espinal.
Subscrib was invited to participate in Seedcamp Portugal. They didn’t win the competition but ended up raising seed money anyway — from a Seedcamp mentor in Lisbon who they had first been introduced to in London at the Campus café. With the money from the mentor — Nishul Saperia — Subscrib built a minimal viable product that was good enough to get them accepted into Seedcamp London two months later and win, netting the start-up an additional €50,000 investment.
Richard Bradshaw, manager of Subscrib client Dose Espresso, says the start-up is a perfect illustration of the benefits of the space for young companies. “If I wanted to start my own start-up, I would pack it in as a manager and I would probably just sit [in Central Working],” says Bradshaw. “Everyone here wants to advertise what they’re doing, wants to sell what they’re doing and there’s nothing better than a café bar where you share coffee and your personal aspirations.”
Creating the ideal environment for growing businesses is not just about offering space, says Central Working CEO and co-founder James Layfield. “It’s about encouraging and building collaborative relationships.” Layfield and partner Steve Pette opened the first Central Working space in the Bloomsbury area of London in May 2011.
“I know the pain of starting a business which is partly why we wanted to do this idea of helping people, rather than just creating some space,” says Layfield. “Hotel lobbies didn’t really work. Starbucks didn’t really work, especially if you wanted to go to the toilet. At that point you were absolutely screwed. You’d either leave your laptop to save your seat, and lose it, or leave to go to the loo and come back and your seat had gone. Or, you’d go to fancy places like Soho House where you’re not allowed to use your phone, you’re not allowed to use Skype and I just thought this is crazy.”
So Layfield, who once ran a lounge at JFK Airport in New York City, decided to create a similar type of space in London. When it was announced that Google was going to establish a multi-purpose space to help start-ups in East London, he got in touch to propose they collaborate.
The Central Working space inside Google Campus, which is wired for maximum productivity, is unusual in that it is free to use the space and patrons can stay as long as they like. That’s no accident. When Google set up Campus “we insisted that one area — the café — be open to all entrepreneurs and always be free,” says Google Campus Manager Eze Vidra.
“There’s about a thousand people every week going through that space, in super early stages and they’re all looking for that connection,” says Central Working’s Layfield. Some have found investment, others have connected with business partners, “so we’ve really helped them grow their businesses.”
Subscrib is a case in point. It has now moved its operation from the fourth floor to the Seedcamp office and the company is rolling out its service to new types of businesses. “We grew faster than we could have anywhere else outside of Silicon Valley, in terms of building a network of relevant people. They were all sitting in Central Working,” says Zvinis.
Subscrib’s tale is the kind of thing the UK government was hoping to facilitate when it launched the Tech City initiative in November 2010, encouraging major technology companies to invest in the emerging cluster. The Prime Minister himself made it to the Central Working space next door to Google Campus in December — the same day he announced a £50 million regeneration of the Old Street roundabout, which will include a new civic space. In that announcement, he said: “This Government backs aspiration and innovation and Central Working provides a great environment that will help growing businesses compete and thrive in the global race.”
It is certainly providing a home for a groundswell of ambitious young companies. Safa Boga met Andy Shora, the man who would later become her co-founder, there last August. Both had quit their day jobs (she was a bonds salesperson at JP Morgan, he worked at a start-up focused on cryptography) and were toying with the idea of starting something new. They found themselves sitting near each other at Central Working and began talking. Six weeks later they jointly launched CPD (short for Continued Professional Development) Review, an online “TripAdvisor for dental courses.” The site, which is advertising supported, aggregates all the dental courses across the UK as well as events, seminars and trade shows. “Nowhere else in London can you walk in a room and get involved in a start-up that easily,” says Boga, who continues to use Central Working as an office.
While serendipity is an important part of what happens in Google’s open spaces, not all is left to chance, says Campus Manager Vidra. Google uses a corner of Central Working space to offer regular “office hours” so that entrepreneurs can meet with Google employees to get technical and business advice. While the mentees clearly benefit, so do the Google mentors. “The mentors take some of this magic back to Google afterwards,” he says.
Google’s largesse is also benefiting some of its own former employees. Back in 2010 when Damien Allison was still working at Google and first heard about the idea of Campus, he never imagined he would be running a start-up from a café there. Now he is part of a team of ex-Googlers working on www.sitemorph.netfrom Central Working. Site Morph has developed a collection of web apps designed to help web sites grow by putting ideas for marketing, engagement and conversion optimization at the fingertips of site owners.
Site Morph counts a number of Campus residents as clients. “You couldn’t find a keener bunch of early adopters sitting around enjoying a coffee in London if you tried,” says Allison. “To get the most out of it though, you have to take your headphones out, lift your gaze from your IDE (integrated development environment) and engage with those around you,” he says. “For me personally, I have found the feedback from early adopters invaluable. Now that we are starting to move from learning to MVP (minimal viable product) and earning, we have found a ready-made audience, always happy to offer us feedback.”
Being a cafe resident is helpful on a number of fronts, he says. “The ecosystem around Campus is almost the definition of lean innovation, says Allison. “You find yourself surrounded by tens of people working to create ‘traction’ on a shoestring. Many of them are willing to offer advice based on their experience, and potentially become part of what you are doing. Be it the job pin-board — yes, a pin board, we are not talking Pinterest here — to the amazing array of events, all geared up to helping you make your idea a success, Campus has something for everyone.”
Like Subscrib and CPD Review, Site Morph credits Central Working and Campus for its success to date. “If you don’t think that Campus has made a difference, head down to the cafe one afternoon and try to find an empty seat. Sure all these people could probably be parked in Starbucks but it wouldn’t be the same: where would we all find so much free super-fast Wifi, great chats over coffee and willing advisors sitting next to each other?” asks Allison. “The magic comes from the people, all trying to make their dream come true armed only with a laptop.”
— Jennifer L. Schenker contributed reporting to this story